Professor Paul Murray’s class on the civil rights movement

Paul Murray went South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. For many years he has taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at Sienna College and taken high school and college students on trips to see places made famous by the struggle for freedom and equality.

Professor Murray, Paul to many of us, is retiring soon. This year’s class on the Civil Rights Movement has been his last. For the last session, he held a discussion of whether the Civil Rights Movement had succeeded or failed. Just three students thought it had been a success. Paul asked why. Students brought up discriminatory policing, the impact of putting so many Blacks in prison for behavior that would not get whites prosecuted let alone incarcerated, and the extent to which Blacks still go to schools segregated by zoning and other boundaries, understaffed with fellow students who mirror their own economic backgrounds and skin color.

Gradually Paul got the students to drill deeper –hadn’t some things changed for the better, where and for whom? Elementary schools changed less than colleges and universities. Housing patterns are more segregated after the emergence of white suburbs and wealth is still very skewed. For one student, her very existence depended on the Civil Rights Movement when the Supreme Court held states could no longer ban intermarriage of whites and Blacks.

My wife commented that the world is different from what it was when she grew up in the South or even when we moved into Albany in 1979. African-Americans do many things they couldn’t then. Out shopping and dining years ago we’d just see African-Americans working as busboys and janitors. Now we see them as waiters, hosts, and salespeople. We work alongside African-American professionals, lawyers, businessmen and faculty. And when we came to Albany the city was still geographically and politically divided by faith and national origin in a way that has long since passed.

Another woman commented that being white is actually a step forward for many whites in the room, who grew up knowing that our own groups were discriminated against. Somehow all those ethnic and religious differences no longer separated good, helpful, valuable people from anyone else, and we’re all much richer for it.

The Civil Rights Movement made a difference to all of us, Black and white. A law professor years ago wrote a book about the African-American contribution to the First Amendment.[1] Much of the improvement in Americans’ sense of brotherhood was also forged in the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t count on it. We had an integrated federal bureaucracy for half a century after the Civil War until President Woodrow Wilson drove Blacks out of the civil service. We had integrated restaurants and theaters in the South before the Klan terrorized southern Blacks, taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions that what happens in the South is no business of Congress and federal prosecutors.[2] The Supreme Court in our own time has called a halt to integration, repeating its 19th century backsliding. The schools and criminal justice system are still failing Blacks.

I don’t know how long it will take. Visitors to Paul’s class had spent their lives working for justice and we all have to keep working for it. I want to believe that our work and social relationships will gradually drive racial justice in the same way they drove the integration of ethnic groups and the gay rights movement. It’s been harder and slower regarding race but we will get there, thanks to people like Professor Murray.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2016.

[1] Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First amendment (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966).

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The strange career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, Commemorative ed., c2002) (1955).

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